Kevin Craig-Impact (FINAL)

Bioenergy Trailblazer ・ Innovator ・ Mentor

Kevin Craig retired in December 2023 after nearly two decades of service to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO). Starting as a chemical engineer analyzing coal and biomass gasification power systems and retiring as the Program Manager for BETO’s Conversion Technologies Program, Craig leaves a legacy. He has been on the forefront of the clean energy transition that accelerated in the late 20th century, making significant contributions in research, leadership, and innovation. He was recently presented the Secretary of Energy Exceptional Service Award for exemplifying the highest standards of and dedication to public service and significant benefits to DOE and the nation. His approach to service challenged and empowered the best researchers and scientists to develop their ideas into transformational, real-world technologies.

Craig’s Career Trajectory and Highlights: EARLY 1980s – EARLY 2000s

Craig always had an affinity for chemistry and pure mathematics and developed computer models for chemical processing while in college at West Virginia University pursuing his B.S. in chemical engineering.  After graduate school, Craig took on a role at DOE’s fossil energy lab in Morgantown, West Virginia (now known as the National Energy Technology Laboratory). The lab was hiring chemical engineers to develop, test, and improve the Advanced Systems for Processing Engineer (ASPEN) process simulation software package and apply it to first-of-a-kind analyses of coal gasification power systems. “Those analyses spun out into a number of large projects that DOE later funded to construct and operate coal gasification combined cycle systems,” said Craig.  He was also the manager of contracted ASPEN simulation projects at Simulation Sciences Inc. (now InvenSys), where he developed novel approaches for using process simulation in process control among other major projects. 

Craig says his interest in the renewable energy sector grew after browsing employment advertisements in the late 1980s to early 1990s. 

“Instead of USAJobs, a thick book was published monthly with job opportunities at DOE,” Craig said. “This was of course pre-internet, and I would always be looking at the jobs at the Solar Energy Research Institute - or SERI - which was established during the Ford Administration and is now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. It seemed like a cool place to work, and I thought renewable energy sounded fascinating. After George H.W. Bush was elected, SERI was renamed to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory - or NREL - and they were hiring people to do biobased combined cycle power generation. I was hired at NREL and became what’s now called the Lab Relationship Manager (LRM) for Biopower. Back then there were three programs – biofuel, biopower, and essentially industrial technologies. In the late 1990s, DOE started combining those offices over time into what’s now called BETO and I became Deputy Program Manager, or LRM, for the biofuels program at NREL.”  

Craig had been connected to DOE and its projects for many years and in 2004 decided it was time for a change after dealing with what he referred to as the “ups and down of lab funding.” Through his network, he heard about job openings at BETO’s Golden Field Office and transitioned there.  “They were growing the biofuels space and initially I was brought on to do project management work for the feedstock program.” Craig saw BETO grow into the structure that it has now, combining program and project management as part of the portfolio. 

Craig and BETO’s Conversion Technologies Program

Commercial scale processes that are in production today have benefited from Craig’s leadership over the years, elevating bioenergy as a viable energy source. Before retiring in December 2023 as program manager for BETO’s Conversion Technologies Program, Craig was primarily focused on supporting research and development (R&D) in technologies converting biomass feedstocks into intermediate or final products-such as fuels, fuel precursors, fuel blend stocks, and chemicals that can be made into renewable polymers or other industrial compounds. “That simply means taking sustainable renewable feedstocks and making them into sustainable and renewable fuels and products,” said Craig. “What resonates with people is converting ethanol into sustainable aviation fuel and the impact of plastics on the environment. One of the things we are doing is finding better ways to use our technologies, biological enzymes and organisms, to break down and recycle plastics and come up with new plastics, new polymers that are designed for recyclability.”

BETO-funded work in plastics is extensive and includes the Bio-Optimized Technologies to keep Thermoplastics out of Landfills and the Environment (BOTTLE™) consortium, a multi-organization effort focused on developing new chemical upcycling strategies for today's plastics and redesigning tomorrow's plastics to be recyclable-by-design. “The BOTTLE Consortium is really exciting considering the partnerships that have been developed like Amazon and Patagonia, major companies that are serious about sustainability,” said Craig. BOTTLE’s vision is to deliver selective, scalable technologies to enable cost-effective recycling, upcycling, and increased energy efficiency.

Conversion’s R&D has led to other major commercial successes including BETO’s work with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts Process Development Unit (ABPDU), which enables early-stage advanced biofuels, biomaterials, and biochemicals product and process technologies to successfully scale from the lab to commercial relevance. The ABPDU has enabled billions of dollars in private investment for sustainable fuels, products, materials, and food. 

BETO-funded work impacts people on a national, regional, and local level and another initiative that Craig highlighted as a major project during his career at BETO is the Waste-to-Energy Technical Assistance for Local Governments Program.  This program helps local communities seeking to improve their organic waste management ranging from issues with the rising costs of disposal; to finding alternatives to current waste management practices due to aging infrastructure or systems; to addressing concerns about odors, litter, or sanitation truck traffic. Craig said, “One of the things that’s had outside impact is work in the community waste space. Beau Hoffman [a BETO Technology Manager] stood up efforts to apply lab capabilities in helping communities and municipalities determine best use of wet waste.” Since launching in 2021, BETO and NREL have formed diverse partnerships, exploring waste resource availability, environmental justice impacts, and more. 

While BETO’s investments have a multi-faceted impact on industries, governments, and other entities, one of the main aspects of BETO’s R&D is finding solutions to equitably transition America to net zero greenhouse gas emissions economy-wide by no later than 2050 and ensure the clean energy economy. “For a long time, our biggest charismatic goal was the price of renewable fuel, but I’m happy that now we’re focused on developing technologies that both reduce the production cost and increase the carbon reduction potential for fuels and products, "said Craig. 

We sat down and talked to Craig about the clean energy transition, his advice to those looking to enter the renewable energy space, and his next steps after retiring. 

What does the clean energy transition mean to you? 

“We’ve had 28 COPS [United Nations Climate Change Conferences] now, which is great. Through the last few years, whether it be wildfires, hurricanes, or torrential rains, it’s having a real impact on every country and every population in the world. There are a number of ways we can address that and reduce the impact of climate change, but obviously a critical one is going to be the energy transition to renewable, sustainable, less carbon-emitting processes and activities. It’s exciting to be on the frontlines of coming up with ways to mitigate climate change and make a real difference in everybody’s lives.”

What advice do you have for individuals looking to enter your field? 

“Patience. It’s a long road and we do work for larger organizations and large organizations are bureaucratic. Do your best to work within the system and have the impact you can.”

“Be humble and be open to other ways of doing things. New ideas, new collaborations. One of my skills is lateral thinking, which is seeing connections outside of the box. Be open. Talk to people. Listen to others.”

“Hire people who are passionate. The great thing about our BETO office is that everyone is tremendously passionate about the mission and what they do.”

“Maintain objectivity. It's easy to get invested in individual projects and technology but remember this is not your money or your project. It's BETO money, It’s taxpayer money. One of the lessons I’ve always remembered from my very first boss is to think about the average teacher’s salary and divide your salary by that and always make sure you’re adding that amount of value to all of the things we’re doing. It really is a public trust.”

“Work-life Balance and setting goals. Make sure that your projects continue to add value and have an end point. We should be solving problems in our lifetime.”

What’s next?

“Good question! I’ll probably take a few months to settle into retirement. I really do hope to stay connected. I am passionate about the office and the mission, and I really do, in some capacity or another, hope to stay involved. I had about a dozen different reasons for why I’m retiring, but one of the reasons is that there are so many talented early and mid-career people in the program and the only opportunities they’ll have to advance and implement their own ideas is if people like me get out of the way. There is a lot of history for those retiring from DOE and I hope that people are not reluctant to reach out to me to know more because institutional knowledge is also important.”

Learn more about Craig’s career and follow BETO’s Impact Series for more BETO profiles. 

BETO supports technology research, development, and demonstration to accelerate greenhouse gas emissions reductions through the cost-effective and sustainable use of biomass and waste feedstocks across the U.S. economy. BETO is part of DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy.

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